OTTAWA — The Liberal government turned the page on two years of acrimony between Canada and Russia on Monday as Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion sat down for his first formal meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
The 30-minute discussion took place in the tiny country of Laos, where Dion and Lavrov were attending an annual meeting of Southeast Asian nations. Sources say the location was chosen because it represented neutral ground for the two sides.
The meeting was the first of its kind between Canada and Russia in years. The previous Conservative government steadfastly refused to meet with anyone from the Kremlin until Russia left Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion appears at the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland Saturday July 9, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
As a result, contacts between the two countries had been largely limited to technical discussions between bureaucrats.
The Liberal government has said it remains committed to standing with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. To that end, Dion spokesman Joseph Pickerill said the minister had "frank discussions" with Lavrov about Russian actions in Ukraine and other parts of eastern Europe, as well as in Syria.
But the ministers also talked about the potential for co-operation in the Arctic, space and counter-terrorism — areas the Russians have been keen to focus on as they have attempted to change the channel away from Ukraine.
While the Liberals promised during last year's election campaign to re-engage with Russia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been facing calls to keep up the pressure.
The government agreed earlier this month to organize a 1,000-strong NATO battle group in Latvia whose mission is to dissuade neighbouring Russia from flexing its muscles in the Baltic state. The U.S., United Kingdom and Germany are organizing similar forces in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania.
Earlier this month, during the NATO leaders' summit in Warsaw, where the Latvia mission was unveiled, Dion told The Canadian Press that it was "terribly unfortunate" that Canada had to send military forces to Eastern Europe. But he also said it made sense to talk to the Russians.
"Canada will be strong on deterrence and strong on dialogue. We need to do both," Dion said. "It's important for our allies, including Ukraine. It's important for our own interests. After all, Russia is our neighbour in the Arctic."
The meeting between Dion and Lavrov has been welcomed by Russian officials, who are hoping for a fresh start in relations between the two countries. But it generated mixed reactions from opposition parties.
Tory defence critic: 'We shouldn't be talking to them'
Russia needs to be isolated for its annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, said Conservative defence critic James Bezan.
"As long as Russia is not de-escalating those activities and reducing tensions in the region, including in the Baltics, we shouldn't be talking to them," Bezan said.
"Ultimately, the diplomacy should not be at this level."
NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere, meanwhile, said talks are good in principle. However, she also called on the Liberal government to put sanctions on two close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin who have business ties with Canada.
Both Igor Sechin, head of state-owned oil company Rosneft, which purchased a stake in Alberta's oilsands in 2012, and Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia's state-owned railway company, which has a joint venture with Montreal-based transportation giant Bombardier Inc., have been sanctioned by the U.S.
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